Flower Power: Why has the orchid suddenly blossomed as a skin-care ingredient?
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Beauty & Brains
By Melisse Gelula
September / October 2006
In January the french beauty company Guerlain introduced Orchidée Impériale face cream, claiming it contained "the secrets of eternal youth found in the slender, graceful orchid." It cost $350 for a 1.7 oz. jar, yet at Saks it sold out within hours, says Laurent Boillot, the company's worldwide marketing director. In Asia a jar was sold every five minutes. Has "orchidelirium," the term coined to describe the Victorians who obsessively hunted and collected the flower, come to skin care?
The orchid seems custom-made for skin-care marketing. Although the name derives from the Greek word orchis, which means "testes" and refers to the shape of the flower's roots, the orchid has decidedly feminine associations--it's beautiful, delicate, exotic, sensual. But Guerlain was interested in the orchid's "mysterious capacity for longevity," not just its beauty. According to Steve Frowine, an orchid expert and author who has tended the collections of several U.S. botanical gardens, orchids surpass the lifespan and bloom of most other flowers. "They bloom for a month instead of a few days. And they don't die unless we kill them," he says.
The research behind Orchidée Impériale took seven years and included consulting Philippe Lecoufle, a fourth-generation orchid specialist whose family-owned nursery, Vacherot & Lecoufle, is 120 years old. According to Frédéric Bonté, Ph.D., the head of research and development for LVMH, Guerlain's parent company, orchid cell membranes contain a longevity molecule. "Usually, aging cells have less and less ability to pass nutrients and vital signals through their membranes," he says. "But this molecule ensures, in all 30,000 species of orchids, that the membranes of the plant's cells don't deteriorate." In short, the cells age, but they still act as if they're 18.
The key ingredient in Orchidée Impériale is a concentrated molecular extract derived from the roots of four orchid species. (The exact ones are a state secret.) Bonté says this orchid quartet contains exceptional biological compounds, among them polyphenols, which fight free radicals, and triterpenes, a phytochemical that may stimulate the formation of lipids and proteins necessary for healthy skin. It takes 2.2 pounds of roots to make one gram of extract.
If the product-launch language is orchidaceous (flowery), the science behind the product seems sensible. The orchid extract, says Bonté, works by short-circuiting an inflammatory protein in the skin called Cytokine IL8 that occurs with age and exposure to UV rays. It not only blocks the tissue-destroying enzymes that inflammation produces but also stimulates an anti-inflammatory response. Both help protect skin-cell membranes from a process called lipid peroxidation, the normal oxidative damage that happens over time to the fatty acids that line the cell.
"We spent two years simply on the molecule-skin interconnection," says Bonté, "reproducing the anti-aging effects that occur in the orchid." Guerlain also tested the benefits of the extract when applied topically and says it revealed firmer skin, decreased wrinkle depth, and improved radiance after four weeks. None of the studies have been peer-reviewed.
Guerlain isn't alone in touting orchids. By Terry, headed by former Yves Saint Laurent creative director Terry de Gunzburg, uses black orchids (cycnoches cooperi) in its Purpulyn System, a line based on the "antioxidant power of dark flowers and berries." Phytomer's Fleur's range uses an extract made from "antioxidant and moisturizing rhizomes" of the purple orchid (bletilla striata) from China in its new AromAqua Orchydra Collection. And Astara, an American spa line that favors natural ingredients, includes the Peruvian orchid (epidendrum ibaguense) in its reparative Activated Antioxidant Infusion cream. Astara founder Sunny Griffin likes this species because of its esoteric mythology. "It is revered as the orchid of eternal youth by villagers (most of whom are centenarians) who live close to where it is grown," reads the product information, describing the remote Andean setting where the orchid is sourced.
These products differ from Orchidée Impériale, though, in that none uses a molecular extract that's engineered to penetrate the skin. Instead, they incorporate orchid essences from rhizomes or petals. Using the petals seems logical for scent, says Frowine, since orchids produce an incredibly wide variety of them. "But for an effect, you'd have to chemically isolate the compounds, like chemists do with plants for pharmaceuticals. And you'd use a vegetative part of the plant for this, like the roots. I can't say authoritatively, but it sounds like that could work."
Label Literacy: Deciphering a label written in Latin
Unless you're a professor of Latin or botany, figuring out exactly what's in a botanically based skin-care product isn't easy. Herbal Recovery Gel, a cult-favorite botanical serum made by the Australian organic-skin-care company Jurlique contains Glycyrrhiza glabra and Camellia sinensis. Why can't Jurlique just use plain old "licorice" and "green tea" on the label?
Because it would be breaking the law. Botanicals are an exception to the Food and Drug Administration's Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, which requires that labels be in English (except in Puerto Rico). With botanicals, the agency defers to Latin because it's the lingua franca of science when it comes to the names of plant and animal genera and species, says Kathleen Dezio, a spokesperson for the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association. (It helps manufacturers understand the legal requirements for personal-care products.) American skin-care companies, and those that wish to sell products here, are subject to the labeling guidelines set out in the CTFA-approved reference work, the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary and Handbook (INCI). "The goal of INCI nomenclature is to have one label on a product that can be sold in many different countries and ensure that everyone means the same thing by the ingredients listed," says Dezio. (Okay, but wouldn't English work as well? After all, more consumers understand it than Latin.)
Jurlique goes the FDA one better, using Latin for botanical ingredients but also adding the English or common names of many ingredients. That's because product transparency is part of the company's guiding philosophy, says Mary-Elizabeth Gifford, creative director of Jurlique USA. (In fact, Jurlique labels are written in Latin and the official language in many of the 18 countries where the products are sold.)
But caveat emptor: Translation is not always a sign of transparency. Some manufacturers use it to make a product that contains chemicals, emulsifiers, and preservatives appear natural. What makes Herbal Recovery Gel popular is its herbal honesty--and its street cred. Jurlique grows its own plants and flowers and makes and distributes the gel to ensure quality and efficacy. And while botanicals don't often have clinical trials to support their efficacy, the ones listed here have an old-fashioned track record in homeopathy and folk remedies. Some of them are listed below. The number indicates the ingredient's position on the label, and its prominence by weight in the product. $67 for 1 fl. oz. Available at Jurlique spas or visit www.jurlique.com
No. 2, ROSA GALLICA David Austin English countryside heirloom roses, Jurlique's hallmark botanical, grown at the company farm in Adelaide, Australia. "Its high fragrance is a barometer of phytoactivity," says Gifford. Rose soothes and hydrates and is typically recommended for sensitive skin.
No. 3, CHAMOMILLA RECUTITA German chamomile, a gentle, antioxidant-rich herb with potent anti-inflammatory properties. Hence the folk remedy of putting tea bags over the eyes.
No. 4, CALENDULA OFFICINALIS Pot marigold. Use dates from Roman times, if not earlier, for its pronounced skin-soothing and antibacterial properties. Used in many products that treat red, itchy, or irritated skin.
No. 5, GLYCYRRHIZA GLABRA Licorice. Most often used in skin care for its brightening and soothing properties. It may also moisten and soften.
No. 6, SAMBUCUS NIGRA Black elderflowers (as well as the berries and inner bark). Has been used for brightening and toning the complexion since the 18th century.
Beauty Contest: Two ways to win at reducing redness
Specialized Serums These have a light texture and a single focus: to treat skin that's inflamed. The cause can be an adverse reaction to cosmetic ingredients, a sugar-laden diet, sun damage, or stress. You would think that water would be the antidote to inflammation, but it can actually exacerbate it by drying the skin, according to Lorrie Klein, M.D., the medical director of Euro Day Spa in Laguna Niguel, California. A better choice is a serum such as Anakiri Soothing PhytoNutrient Serum ($36, www.anakiri.com) or Eminence Organic Skin Care Couperose-C Serum ($38, www.eminenceorganics.com for spas). Both use a base of essential fatty acids such as rose hip and contain anti-inflammatory herbs, which help the skin hold and absorb water, says Anakiri founder Erich Worster. True Comforting Redness Reducer ($45, www.truecosmetics.com for spas) uses a base of distilled rose, lavender, and green-tea extract, which acts as a topical antihistamine. Because green tea is gentle on the skin and a potent antioxidant, it's included in Christine Chin Redness Relief Serum ($79, www.christinechin.com). It contains marine-derived sea whip, too, which also calms redness. Broken capillaries are a redness subcategory. Constricting them and thus dispersing the blood helps even skin tone. That's done with vitamin K and arnica extract in Cornelia Essentials Redness Recovery Serum ($150, www.cornelia.com) and with plant-derived Gatuline A in DDF Redness Relief ($48, www.ddfskincare.com), which has clinical data on its ability to reduce blotchiness and inflammation, says DDF cofounder Elaine Linker.
Corrective Creams These are really modified moisturizers. The base is often shea butter, which contains antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, and a large amount (up to 12 percent) of a moisturizing fat called an unsaponifiable. It's high in essential fatty acids (oleic and linoleic acid) and unlikely to irritate skin, says Wil Baker, vice president of Max Green Alchemy. All this makes shea butter a good remedy for itchiness and dryness, which is the role it plays in the steroid-free Max Green Alchemy Skin Rescue Cream ($26, www.maxgreenalchemy.com), which also contains anti-inflammatory botanicals, and in Rodan + Fields Soothe Facial Cream ($65, www.rodanandfields.com), a cosmeceutical line that uses non-prescription-strength hydrocortisone. Shea butter also helps with acne-related redness in DermaDoctor Calm, Cool & Corrected ($85, www.dermadoctor.com), because it hydrates without causing breakouts. There's a coterie of creams that prevent redness by offering protection from the environment. Comfort Zone Skin Resonance Cream SPF 15 ($85, 866-328-4637 for spas) contains "heat-shock proteins" from marine-derived artemia and yeast extracts, which, along with the sunscreen, help shield the skin. All-natural Arcona Super Black Tundra ($48, www.arcona.com) defends and soothes irritated skin with antioxidant black tundra moss. Finally, there's the purely cosmetic approach: tinting a cream blue or green to neutralize the appearance of redness. That's the tack taken by B. Kamins Chemist Booster Blue Rosacea Treatment ($67, www.bkamins.com), which contains a maple-derived antioxidant, and the penny-wise Eucerin Redness Relief Tone Perfecting Creme ($15, www.drugstore.com).
Skin Tech: The new Fraxel laser: Less pain, more gain
Until recently, the co2 laser was dermatologists' tool of choice for resurfacing the face--sanding down fine lines and wrinkles and eliminating sun spots (hyperpigmentation) and acne scars. The CO2 is very effective but has two major drawbacks: The procedure is painful, and it takes three weeks for the redness and blistering to heal. During that time you're under house arrest.
That's why the advent of the Fraxel laser, which received FDA approval for resurfacing in July 2005, is a milestone. The Fraxel inflicts far less pain and requires far less downtime: only two days. Compared to the CO2 laser, it's a magic wand, although the CO2 is still the best choice for treating deep wrinkles. (The Fraxel was also cleared for removing acne scars and melasma, the hard-to-treat pregnancy mask.)
The name Fraxel stands for fractional photothermolysis and refers to the laser's key aspect: It's used on one area of the face at a time. Moreover, rather than vaporize the skin down to the dermis to promote the growth of new skin, as the CO2 laser does, the Fraxel makes millions of microscopic wounds (called microthermal zones, or MTZs), each about one millimeter deep. They coagulate the epidermis with thermal energy, explains Lawrence S. Bass, M.D., in the May-June 2005 Aesthetic Surgery Journal. Then, over the next several weeks, the skin expels the coagulated tissue (don't worry; it's undetectable to the naked eye) and replaces it with new tissue.
"One procedure treats about 20 percent of the face," says Brad Hauser, the Fraxel product manager at Reliant Technologies, which developed the laser in conjunction with cosmetic-laser pioneer R. Rox Anderson, M.D., the director of Harvard's Wellman Center for Photomedicine. Anderson correctly theorized that leaving untouched skin around the lasered area would promote faster healing.
The less-is-more approach is crucial to rapid healing, says Roy G. Geronemus, M.D., the director of Laser & Skin Surgery Center of New York and immediate past president of the American Society for Laser Medicine & Surgery. "When much of the skin is spared injury, there's less pain and the skin heals more quickly." Dr. Geronemus uses a skin-cooling device and a topical anesthetic during resurfacing to minimize pain. Redness, dryness, and flaking are part of the healing process, he says, "but this is usually insignificant." The skin isn't left raw.
Three to five treatments are generally required for anti-aging results, says Dr. Geronemus. Treatments start at about $1,000 each and occur at three- to six-week intervals. It often takes a few months to see the full effect, but during that period, you can actually show your face.
My Spa Rolodex
Gaye Straza Rappaport, Founder of Kai For Malibu-based Rappaport, 47, and her husband, Rob, vacation means spa vacation. Their beat is California and Hawaii, where they were married on the beach 15 years ago. (Kai, Rappaport's fragrance and body-care line, was inspired by her tropical wedding bouquet.) We go often and even have a spa schedule, she says: "Enjoy the beach until 2 p.m., Jacuzzi and steam at 3 p.m., massage at 4 p.m., followed by dinner. Then straight to bed, so we can wake up and do it all over again."
Four Seasons Resort Maui at Wailea, Hawaii for the "unbelievable" open-air treatments given on the beach. "I've been to many of the high-end spas in Hawaii. Here I love to get a massage in an outdoor hale overlooking the water, where I can hear the ocean and feel the breeze." 808-874-8000, www.fourseasons.com
Bacara Resort & Spa, Santa Barbara, California for a day of pampering with her husband at the "gorgeous oceanside property." She has a long steam and a Swedish massage--"my favorite combination." He has the works: mani, pedi, massage. "And Bacara has the best steam room--I'm getting one put in our house." 805-968-0100, www.bacararesort.com
Two Bunch Palms, Desert Hot Springs, California for Watsu. "My husband surprised me with a trip here on my 40th birthday, and I tried Watsu for the first time. I loved it and have been back a few times just to have it. It's especially amazing in the desert." 760-329-8791, www.twobunchpalms.com
Five Questions for David Sayah, M.D.
Recently, there's been a surge in at-home microdermabrasion kits. Some, like those from DermaNew and Neutrogena, even include a battery-operated spinning applicator, loosely mimicking the abrasion wands used at spas. Dr. Sayah, the medical director of Centre Epiderme Medi-Spa at Frederic Fekkai in Beverly Hills, sizes up this new product genre.
What is microdermabrasion? It's a catchall term for a spa treatment that polishes or removes the outer layer of the epidermis; it's named after the surgical procedure called dermabrasion, which goes deeper, removing layers of the dermis as well. Microdermabrasion temporarily gives you softer-feeling skin, sands away bumps and fine lines, and makes the skin more receptive to products.
Is the at-home version as effective as a spa visit? I doubt that any of the products are as effective. In treatments, it's not the abrasive but the skill and diligence of the aesthetician that's important. That is, persistent and constant abrasion of all problem areas. Aestheticians are able to look closely at your face as they work, something that's difficult to do at home unless you live in a house of mirrors.
In some cases, the kit ingredients are the same as those in face scrubs. Are these just fancy face scrubs? From now until the end of time, there will be gimmicks and marketing tools. "At-home microdermabrasion" is exactly another term for "face scrub." The makers have simply given it a medical term in trying to lend it legitimacy.
Are you concerned that women will overdo it with these kits, as with at-home peels? I would not use a scrub or microdermabrasion product every day. It robs your skin of vital oils. If skin needed that much exfoliation on a daily basis, over the past several thousand years it would have developed a mechanism to slough it off, like a snake.
So the greatest risk is drying out your skin? Probably. The FDA limits the aggressiveness of nonmedical procedures and products to protect the public. But the kit could cause dry skin and worsening of medical skin conditions like acne. You might get some beneficial effect from the kits, but less than you'd get from microdermabrasion performed by a professional.